Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Advice I gave Billie - play the game...

Billie was viewing two council properties this morning and I told her that no matter how awful the flats, to accept them both. I told her to play the game.

I for one refuse to play the game. Why? Because I refuse to play a game where my child is the pawn.

The rules are quite simple. Bid for everything no matter where it is. Accept the property, no matter where it is or what condition it is in or how disreputable the estate is. Who cares if your child might get stabbed in a stairwell? Take it.

At this juncture you might want to know how bidding works.

Camden operates a Choice Based Letting System. Families accumulate points, the bidding currency, in order to successfully bid on properties advertised weekly, every Thursday, via the Home Connection website. According to Camden's Full Allocation Scheme (section 1.3): "Generally, under the scheme, social housing will be let to households with the highest level of points and those who are in the greatest housing need."

The council shortlists the six applicants with the "highest" points and they all view it together.

Billie has no points, so therefore I assume she must be in the category of the 'greatest housing need'.

You must say whether you accept the property there and then. You are allowed five to ten minutes to think about it; think about the rest of your life and that of your child. This is not 'Location Location Location' you know, you won't get a chance to look at another tomorrow. There is only an average of three two bedroom flats listed weekly that an average of 300 people bid for, and these are mostly on estates. It's an ugly ugly process.

If the first bidder refuses the flat, it's offered to the second and so on. This can be good, this can be bad, depending on the flat and its location.

Under the choice based system, you are allowed to refuse a flat as many times as you like. So the council says.....

The first time I viewed a flat, three years ago, I was number six on the shortlist and Number One accepted the property. I'm not against small properties as I believe in the supernatural and I am scared of things that go bump in the night. My Clapham bolthole, the private sector studio I lived in pre move in with the Foca (Father of child and anything else you might add) was miniscule.

This property contained a small room for my son, a small one for me, a small living room to share and entertain friends, a tiny kitchen and small bathroom. However, it was up three flights of stairs, too narrow for my bicycle and no space for it up at the top. I ticked the 'no' box and thought nothing of it, particularly as it had already been accepted by Number One.

One year later I was called to view another. I can't describe the excitement, the hope, the desire. It captures in your throat so you can barely breathe. Twenty five people had turned it down before me, I had first refusal. The location was excellent, the flat was small but again, it was three flights up, and no room at the top in its narrow rectangular hallway. Damn damn bicycle. I didn't cry, I howled, hyperventilating on the top step.

I haven't viewed a flat since, I've gone from being 25th on a waiting list to 300th/ 250th.

During my dissertation research Mohammed told me:

"A few weeks ago someone got a flat with 365 points, less than me, and I wasn't called to view. I ask downstairs "what is this?" and they say "people need it more than you do"."

I asked Mohammed if he'd viewed properties before. He too had been sixth on one list, third on another and both had been accepted by others infront of him. I asked if he'd turned them down. After a while he admitted that yes he had. "My biggest worry for me is my kids," he said. "Kentish Town is not nice, so much drug dealing. If he grew up in this area (Swiss Cottage) my son would be different than if he grew up in Kentish Town." He now knows better than to be so picky. These fussy parents, these fussy fussy parents.....

The council vehemently denies that by turning down a property an individual will slip down the list and they've never answered why I have. However, it is because of my experience that I know how to play this wretched bidding game. There's no degree of success playing it, but there's more chance than not playing it at all, like me.

The council tells families to "keep bidding" and to "bid for everything". We must do this, even if we have no desire to live in the area where the flat is situated, no desire to uproot our children from their school. To bid in this way however, provides the council with conclusive evidence that we are as desperate and eager to move as we say we are, and gives us leverage to complain.

We exist in an ambiguous liminality playing this system and being played by it.

Billie didn't get either of the properties she went to see. One was really nice, she said. "All the rooms were big, the kitchen was big, so nice.". The other "wasn't so nice, it was small, things were broken." She accepted them both, although both had already been accepted. This could have potentially thrown her into another depressive episode but she has her social worker, and will be viewing more soon.

For the rest of us, the process is soul destroying. Our children can only sit by and watch how we deal with that.

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